“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust;” ancient words we’re not used to hearing these days. Ashes are dry, lifeless flakes of things once living and now dead. Christians are anointed with them on Ash Wednesday.
In navigating the masculine journey, ashes are a symbolic reminder that many of our goals, dreams, and desires don’t turn out the way we’d hoped: mistakes are made, lovers leave, marriages fail, job promotions fizzle, , plants close, parents die, we get old, we get sick, and then we die too. Too morbid? It’s reality. While life is to be lived and strength reflects glory, we often find ourselves with ashes.
When men fail to accept ashes, they may ask: “what’s the matter with me? Why am I’m failing? What must I do differently?” Lacking wisdom, they may decide: “I’m a loser. I don’t measure up!” Worse, they may say, “I’m so ashamed of my failure. No one can see this. I better hide.” Every single day, newspapers are full of stories of men who fail to accept their ashes.
In a healthy men’s group, we come to circle and spread our ashes before each other. We share our disappointments saying, “Look, my dream has turned to ashes. I have lost something that was valuable to me.” And my brothers say, “Yes, we see your ashes and we are sad with you.” Later, perhaps even years later, we look back on those times and say, “That was difficult, but I’m glad for them now. Those ashes were a good thing.”
Lent is a time to grieve the ashes of our life, to sit in them for 40 days, to wear them on our foreheads where, looking in a mirror, we are challenged to accept our human limitations and those of others. It is a humbling thing to wear ashes, but it is a sign of maturity also.
There is another good thing about ashes, they can be used as fertilizer. While it’s not pleasant to grieve, in the process of letting things go whose time has passed, we open ourselves to new things. The ending of one relationship leads to a better one, the job loss leads to a new career, etc. The ashes of our lives are the sign of new beginnings. We give up to receive. First, Ash Wednesday, then 40 days of letting go, and then the celebration of new life: Easter.